Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Education à la Carte: The Shift from Traditional to Student-Centered Teaching

Old-fashioned classroom with wooden table and chairs and blackboard
The Classroom not to mention curriculum and teaching methodology has changed significantly over the years. Class sizes with the exception of colleges that tend to cap the number of students allowed and admitted per classroom have grown exponentially in most academic institutions. Universities have for the most part gotten rid of those uncomfortable and inflexible wooden student writing chairs I used to find myself trapped in for the duration of the class; at the same time, a great deal of traditional writing utensils, such as old-fashioned pen and paper have also been eliminated and are now replaced with styluses, laptops and / or iPads. Electronic cellphones are in practically every hand, be they those of students or teaching faculty, and these gadgets have become an indispensable part of daily life, whether we approve of them or not.

The times they are a-changin’ and technology has affected us in often imperceptible and implicit ways. Yet it has had perhaps one of its most drastic consequences on teaching itself. Schools and universities are naturally more conservative in nature and tend to view trends with a suspicious eye; whenever they feel threatened or invaded by something, they simply ban it. They foment and thrive on fostering discipline and use the cloak of authority to enforce this most effectively. In the past, physical punishment was the norm for misbehaving students and often students were threatened with having parents notified or they would be served notice of possible expulsions from schools and universities.

Students used to have little to no say when it came to their education. They were not asked or consulted, and, in many cases, they were not even considered nor taken into account when it came to educational matters and methods. Instead, the school board and university management emphasized and aggrandized the role of their teachers. The latter were to be treated with utter respect and it went without saying that everything from curriculum to methodology was, ipso facto, teacher-oriented.

Instructors would proverbially preach from the podium and with hanging heads the students would jot down every pronouncement coming from the teacher’s lips as if they were the words of God.  Rote exercises and memory drills would ensure that knowledge of dates and details were imprinted indelibly onto the fresh and impressionable minds of the young. The exams would test rather mindlessly - that is with little creativity and even less critical thinking - what the students had retained from the previous lectures. Those with good or photographic memories would for the main part excel and they could impress with citations of facts and recite poetry without understanding or appreciating any of it.

The adage of knowledge being or posing as power was deeply ingrained into their minds, so students would vie and compete with each other to see who can cram the most amount of information into their spinning and overstuffed heads. Back then, there were not many ways of verifying information except through a quick visit to the local library. But today with the access of knowledge on the fingertips of almost every individual on the planet, facts can be quickly checked and verified or disputed; consequently, the teachers have lost some of their hegemony and autonomy in claiming to be always in the right. In other words, it has become easier now to prove one’s professors wrong and the latter could not just rest on their laurels nor nest on their diplomas but had to ensure now that their facts were indeed correct.

These technological changes alongside changing political and economic circumstances have shifted the focus and practice of education. While the student used to be perceived as an empty vessel that needed to be filled with knowledge, now we view them as autonomous human beings who, more importantly, have their share of rights. Teachers cannot physically punish their students anymore, nor should students be treated disrespectfully; in fact, students are to be seen as active as opposed to passive members in the educational exchange. Moreover, educators do not treat them as blank slates but try to delve into and even utilize their previous knowledge or build upon their existent skills.

Since encyclopedic knowledge has lost its status and value (few today truly and fully believe that knowledge is indeed power) and since information access has become rather commonplace within the new paradigm (essentially anybody can google information), the shift has moved from mere acquisition towards the application of knowledge. This is accomplished via critical thinking and it is a move away from content-specific information (who wrote what when) to skills and learning outcomes (what are the implications of the text in today’s world). What the education system is interested in nowadays is less whether students know something but how they can use and apply their knowledge in their own lives. This has led to the shift from a teacher-oriented to a (more) student-oriented approach.

All of this is constantly shifting and changing and sometimes it goes off course or even overboard. One of the latter instances is the use of a flipped classroom. In this case, it is all about the students and the teachers are stripped from almost all their authority and input and are considered facilitators of the learning process. This can be quite challenging not to say frustrating for students. It may be akin to the (mal)practice of throwing children into the swimming-pool and letting them figure out how to swim by themselves.

There are certainly some benefits to be attained from eclipsing the over-imposing and often interfering figure of the teacher and to give the students opportunities to collaborate and solve problems so that they can think in an active and productive manner. However, the flipped classroom is taking the thought to an utmost and extreme degree that cannot be the best nor the most efficient approach. One should not unduly restrict nor give too much leeway to the students but hold them responsible and accountable while guiding them with appropriate measures. The middle way generally proves best for positive results and there is rarely one single approach that can give the most dividends but rather an amalgamation of different styles.

In the same vein, I do not think that students and teachers should be on equal footing. In many cases, students are already too much in control when it comes to power and authority. This is especially so as higher education is now mainly a form of business and like any successful enterprise it would wish to or has been economically forced to provide their clients and consumers with what they crave most. Certainly, educational standards ought to be kept at a similar level, but these also have become more flexible and may even adjust to political strategies and structures of the times.

Students have earned their human rights, but they should not dictate the mandates of their own education. I disagree with students making up their own exams, deciding on the content of the course or generally doing as they please; students already have a shorter attention span and have problems with concentration and following instructions, so they should not be left to their own devices. Part of the reason why the traditional model of lecturing is not functioning anymore in today’s world is because their capacity to focus has diminished due to the use of various forms of technology and there is little to help them change much or to become otherwise.  

For this reason, educators need to adopt strategies that are best suited for the given outcome. In other words, I would not wholly eliminate the lecture as a source of teaching but would have it minimized and followed with active involvement and participation. It should not be all about the teacher nor should it be all about the student but there should be a healthy balance, the middle-way compromise among the two. What worries me is the danger of eroding respect for the authority, in this case, the teacher or instructor. Their relationship should remain and be on the formal and professional side. It should not be rigid but still have a firm grounding or foothold.

In fact, education should not be a restaurant where students can order whatever they please. It should have an established menu yet be open-minded and flexible to switch its ingredients or change the way the meals are served. One could adjust one’s teaching methods under what I like to call framed spontaneity to make room for improvisations and possible on-the-fly changes to one’s course content as well as delivery. Furthermore, one should not shun nor fear technology by prohibiting cell-phones, laptops or other electronic devices in the classroom but rather take advantage of them and use them for the benefit of everyone involved.

A blended class where classroom interaction is enriched instead of wholly substituted by technological tools would be the most ideal outcome. And in many of these cases, it is common that students know more about technological use and advances than the teacher, so this new knowledge can come in handy for the educator as well. This situation could serve, if used efficiently, as a veritable educational encounter and as a profitable interaction between students and educators, and it would ensure that learning continues to take place on both sides of the spectrum.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Anna Freud: Psychoanalysis for Children

Black and White Picture of both Psychoanalysts
When we think of psychoanalysis, we immediately and automatically associate it with the towering figure of Sigmund Freud, the father and founder of this highly influential branch of psychology. Freud’s views, perspectives and discoveries on human nature and sexuality shocked many but healed many more. He posited that sexuality or sexual desires basically start from birth and then find a culminating point in the Oedipus Complex (the unconscious psycho-sexual desire for the opposite-sex parent) somewhere between the ages three to six.

In fact, the first years of childhood are so important in the psychological development of human beings that they often determine whether a person will have psychological issues and neuroses in their adult life. A wide range of issues from depression to addiction as well as sexual deviance and even more commonly mate selection and marital problems can be traced back to certain traumatic events or triggers that occurred in childhood. As such, the field of psychoanalysis has helped and even cured many a person by allaying and releasing them from such traumatic baggage of the past.

Yet interestingly, Freud rarely worked with children with the famous exception of Little Hans, the case that brought Freud’s views on castration anxiety (the child’s unconscious fear of being punished by the father for his incestuous desires for his mother) to the foreground. Even then, the treatment work was mostly done through indirect means as Freud had little one-on-one contact with Hans himself.

Yet it would be his youngest daughter Anna Freud who would work with children and shed light as well as directly highlight the psychological processes of children. Many would claim that children per se do not need psychoanalysis or that it could be applied only to troublesome kids and bullies that are often quietly suffering themselves and make life hard for their surroundings. But psychoanalysis knows no age restrictions and whether we are thinking of children or adults, this field can help or be of benefit to practically anyone with issues, a situation and condition quite common in our modern times.

Approaching the writings of Anna Freud was very interesting and enlightening to me. I very much enjoyed her style as well as her compassion and understanding of the interior world of children. She also demonstrated to me the difficulties as well as rewards of working with children as opposed to adults. Finally, I was able to learn more than a thing or two about being a responsible parent and being a responsive teacher myself.

One of the first difficulties as a psychoanalytic child therapist is closely and intricately tied to the issue and conditions of employment. For instance, psychologists who treat and counsel troubled youth are generally employed by and under the service of the state government. As a result, they are free to diagnose patients and provide their reports to the government officials in question.

The situation is more complex when it comes to child therapists who are often employed by and need to directly report to the parents of the child. In many cases, the psychological problems stem from the home environment and come from the very people who pay for the therapy sessions themselves! If the therapist finds justified blame and reproach with the parents, then the latter might dismiss the efficacy of the treatment and discontinue working with the therapist to the detriment of all involved.

Conversely, when adults seek the services of a therapist, they may cancel at any time depending on how they view the progress of the therapy. Most of the times the issues can be traced to childhood problems, but, as a rule, the parents then are not the ones who are paying for the treatment; it is the adults themselves who make that decision and subsequent investment. When parental issues come to the foreground, the adult can then effectively deal with them unlike children who are still under the guardianship of their parents and whose opinions about them have not yet crystallized into fixed views.

This is due to their different psychological make-up and stage development. When adults approach the therapist, their ego and superego are already fully formed yet within the child they are both still fluid and malleable. There was not enough time to set them in stone and although this would make it easier to mold them, it also carries with it new sets of challenges.

As a result, the child therapist cannot deal with the same tools and methods that are used with adults. First, the child therapist needs to win over the trust and confidence of the child. With adults this can be achieved through credentials, experience, success rates or even word of mouth recommendations. Children, however, are not particularly impressed by any of that!

Hence the child therapist must first engage in play with the child and gradually build rapport in that manner. Often the therapist must go along with the child’s way of thinking and even copy their peculiar behavior as well as agree with their likes and dislikes. For example, in one case, Anna Freud would meet and talk with a child under the table since that felt like a safe and comfortable spot for that young individual. Or Anna Freud had to impress another child with her knowledge and skills of something that the child viewed as important, be it the act of painting or juggling and balancing items on one’s head, for instance.

To win over the trust of the child, Anna Freud would often simply play with them over the first sessions just to make them feel safe and more comfortable so that they could and would open up to this stranger in front of them. All this would then involve a somewhat higher degree of artifice and pretense with the end that the child not only accept but also respect the therapist as a voice of authority.

With adults, there is or ideally should be very little judgment emanating from the therapist. Although the therapist guides the patient and offers interpretations and viewpoints, they are not meant as judgments. The clients need to find their own truths throughout the whole labor-intensive process.

Yet children cannot be left to their own devices. They need to be guided and educated and even reprimanded at times. They need to be told what the right action is as opposed to a harmful one. In a way, the child therapists do not experience merely the transference of a parental figure, but they must in fact become a living embodiment of that figure in front of the child to have effective treatment.

Usually with adults, the therapist is not much more than an empty canvas on which the client projects and transfers their own issues and then through this transference, the clients may reach the state of abreaction, the realization of the cause and source of their anguish and problems. This insight would greatly help them to underscore unconscious connections in their actions and reactions and to see the situation in more level-headed and clear-minded ways; as a result, they could deal with the issues more effectively in the future.

A child must also reach certain insights, but they are different in scope and nature. The child then needs to see themselves in a different light, but they are still part and parcel of the home environment at least until their young adulthood. By reducing or managing their fears, they may even be able to accept and live with the shortcomings of their own parents.

The insights of child psychoanalysis are not only helpful for therapists, but by extension they are also useful for teachers and parents alike. One of the main assumptions is that children are passing through normal psychological states and stages not unlike biological phases and growth.

Children may be docile at one stage but more troublesome in thought and behavior at another. They can turn from sweet angelic beings to mean, volatile and tantrum-filled little monsters. They can be obsessed with poop, toilet humor and genitals at later stages. 

As educators and parents, we need to take all of this with a grain of salt, reduce punishment and increase our empathy, understanding and patience; moreover, we ought to deal with challenging and difficult situations in an accepting and enlightened way to avoid future trauma or scarring of the child.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Reviving Christianity: A Review of Prophets in our Midst by David T. Johnston

Cover of David Johnston's Book
What caught my immediate attention of David T. Johnston’s book Prophets in our Midst: Jung, Tolkien, Gebser, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother were two aspects of its title: one that it was about prophets and, more importantly, that it specifically mentioned Carl Gustav Jung. Now I may have already in my first paragraph alienated those who believe and follow gurus as well as all those who have their hearts set on the fantastical worlds created by the author of the immensely popular The Lord of the Rings series.

But I must confess that I have (had?) little personal interest in either of the two aforementioned. I have come to see most gurus (I do keep an exceptional clause or small window open for the possibility of authentic ones) as, if not outright frauds, then people with fraudulent tendencies. Part of this stems from my suspicion towards those who claim to have the answers and all of this has a rather claustrophobic cult feel to it. Many so-called gurus have been unmasked and many soi-disant spiritual leaders defrauded by having their motives exposed en masse, be it that they were merely driven by a greedy and ambitious quest for control, power or money or all of the above.

My second hesitation regarding embracing Tolkien is more a matter of personal taste. I am not a fan of fantasy (sorry I don’t like Star Wars either), mainly because I do not clearly see its relation to the real world and hence it has little interest to me. Also, works of the genre are often embedded in and burdened with shallow characters and then lose any artistic or literary merit they could have had. Yet if it may come as a slight solace for the reader, Johnston manages to challenge (some of) my assumptions and may have shown me that I was somewhat hasty in my quick pronouncements.

Let us start with my main point of agreement, however: The importance of Jung and his insights into the human psyche and our relation to the world. Recently, I have been interested in psychoanalysis and Freud’s theories and techniques have helped me uncover and discover certain psychological issues and tendencies; Freud’s theories have helped me diminish and, in some cases, even eliminate main sources of anxiety and this has led me to a much healthier sense of well-being and identity. Hence, I was all ears to approach his major disciple Carl Gustav Jung who eventually fell out with the great founder and father of psychoanalysis.

As Johnston points out Jung’s approach to therapy involves individuation, which entails the quest for one’s unique path towards becoming whole. That could be achieved by identifying with the Self, the cultural and spiritual archetype of the center of the psyche that is connected with our collective past and, even beyond that, with infinity. Yet that would occur only with acceptance of all aspects of the self, including both good and evil as well as the abolition of the limited and limiting conscious ego, the often arrogant and nagging voice of know-it-all droning inside our heads.

According to Johnston, in these troubled and troubling times, it is necessary for us to undergo a cultural renewal and that this is both a challenge but even more a new opportunity to attain higher spiritual levels. Using Jung as a blueprint, the author synchronizes and amalgamates certain aspects of Hindu philosophy represented by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother as well as theories by Swiss philosopher, linguist and poet Jean Gebser (although he comes up rather short in this collection of essays) and, more abundantly, the creative works of Tolkien.

What all of them have in common is the quest for a prophet as a guiding voice and light towards becoming a fuller and more authentic being in a world that seems to bury us in an artificial world of technological prowess, hence robbing us of our uniqueness and spirituality. At various times, Johnston reiterates that the current post-modern world we inhabit is one-dimensional and center-less and that it is fomenting narcissistic desires and behaviors while blocking access to the deeper and more profound recesses of our selves, namely the Cosmic Self as described by the different thinkers / prophets discussed in this book.

Both Tolkien and Jung present the Christian paths of reaching that higher spiritual stage, yet they also remind us that we ought to revise Christianity in order to be able to do so. Essential to this view is the necessity of free will, which can lead to the right path, yet it can also lead us to inferior moral choices including the propensity for committing evil acts. These types of choices are illustrated and embodied in Tolkien’s magnum opus The Lord of the Rings.

One of the shortcomings of the mainstream and traditional Christian view lies in its conception of polar opposites, such as good and evil. Yet according to these thinkers, in reality, it ought to reflect a more harmonious whole, where both sides are acknowledged within the same structure, not unlike the yin and yang of Taoism and where the Self is not bound by dogmatic and rigid views on morality.

Put differently, we need a creative synthesis, a combination of parts of both, something Sri Aurobindo refers to as the psychic being, the incarnated soul, while Jung names this a new way to fulfillment and wholeness of one’s personality, represented in Jung’s creation myth as the Transcendent One. 

This understanding of divinity would include both the god Eros and the goddess Logos that reside in our respective unconscious and they represent both masculine and feminine aspects of the Self. They ought to be embraced and allowed to co-exist in equal measure as a harmonious and complementary whole.

To give an example, Christianity is ruled by the Holy Trinity, hence the number three being its symbolic expression. They are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And, in fact, they are all conspicuously male. However, the dove, a symbol used for the Holy Spirit, is generally female. 

In Gnostic tradition, the Holy Spirit was viewed not only as feminine but also as the embodiment of Sophia, the carrier of the Word and divine wisdom. Yet these symbols include and reflect also the other part in its kaleidoscopic and androgynous intrinsic self. The dove may be outwardly feminine but inside it is masculine and represents conscious thought as well as messages from the spiritual realm.

Similarly, the serpent is outwardly masculine and phallic, but includes feminine receptivity towards desire. In fact, in Gnostic tradition, the serpent is seen both as wild beast and holy counselor, a relevant and indispensable symbol of wisdom. 

The problem with traditional Christianity is then twofold. On one part, it is the denial of feminine qualities (with the possible exception of the Catholic view of the Virgin Mary that provides a subsequent injection of femininity) and on the other hand, it is the repression of the darker parts of one’s being. However, to become whole, one should not repress (which only complicates and aggravates matters) but rather accept and then liberate the darker side of one’s psyche.

According to Sri Aurobindo, the numerical symbol of the harmonious self or the Truth-mind is not the trinity represented by the triangle, but rather the square that is fourfold in nature not unlike the Hebrew Tetragrammaton or the Tetrad of Pythagoras. The number four as a sign of wholeness or complete being can be encountered in various parts of life. 

There are the four gospels, the four elements of the Earth, the four cardinal virtues of the Middle Ages as prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, the four ages that reflect human evolution as well as four types of consciousness, namely thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition. For instance, Tolkien embodies these aspects in the four hobbits that enter their heroic quest as priest, leader, trader and servant. Each one demonstrates a part of an archetype that needs to be individualized to reach its fullest potential and expression. 

One of the main strengths of Tolkien’s creative world is that he enriches Christianity with what were usually viewed as pagan elements but are indeed much needed and neglected archetypes. These forms and images are much more persuasive than arguments and reasons, which is why Tolkien’s works have struck a chord in the souls of many people as they can relate to them from a deeper psychological core of themselves. 

Jung himself believes that a life without archetypes of the collective unconscious is lacking while a richer and fuller life is not possible without those symbols. This may also be the reason why people are so responsive to legends and myths because they point towards a more transcendent truth, a world and reality beyond that of bare and cold facts that general science represents and espouses (with the notable exception of quantum physics).

And yet Christianity itself is not averse to myth. Tolkien based his fundamental design of The Lord of the Rings on the life and resurrection of Christ; Tolkien considered this oeuvre not only to be a religious and even a Catholic work, but he based it on the “True Myth” of the death and resurrection of Christ, as a fully embodied and divine being both on Earth and in Heaven. Along a similar vein, the Ring itself becomes a union of opposites and serves as a symbol for the higher and individuated Self also aided by the symbols of fire and gold as force and durability.

One of the problems with the Christian religion is in fact its defense system and paranoia against evil. By rejecting the shadow self within and by being obsessed with purity, innocence and the potential threat of sin, Christians end up projecting their own darkness onto others. As such, they rarely manage to work out their own desires and instead choose to repress them. As we know, repression is not a reliable solution to problems and issues; those hidden desires are just stacked up in the unconscious and are ready to erupt in unexpected and often shocking ways.

In fact, Jung draws sharp distinctions between religion versus creed and belief. The latter is a community that is built around specialized and specific forms of thought and behavior and it thrives on dogma, rituals and traditions, all of which are there to supposedly protect its adherents from evil, but they only manage to alienate them further from their true and authentic selves.

On the other hand, religion as a form of individuation is divine and is a direct experience of the archetypal psyche known as the numinosum. This Self is not bound by traditional thinking or dogma but has been paved along the way by acceptance and self-discovery. It is beyond good and evil because it embraces and accepts both in perfect harmony. That does not mean that these people are prone to evil acts or that they lack morality, but quite the opposite; they are more forceful in their actions and demonstrate peace and balance along the way because they do not have to look behind their shoulders for a malignant presence or influences at every crossroad.

As a matter of fact, Jesus himself said not to resist evil. This seems rather contradictory to traditional ways of understanding Christianity but seen from Jung’s perspective, it makes perfect sense. One should not resist the shadow self but rather learn to control it by accepting some of its qualities while rejecting others. As such, this is a matter of personal moral discernment leading to a creative and transcendent synthesis. We can then harness and use this energy not only for the good of ourselves but expand it for the benefit of all of humanity.